Facilitating and Evaluating Student Writing

Over the summer I worked on revising a manual for teaching assistants that we hand out each year at our annual TA Orientation. One of the sections deals with writing intensive courses across disciplines and how TAs can facilitate and evaluate writing assignments. The information, advice, and resources in the manual speak to an audience beyond graduate student teaching assistants. Even seasoned instructors may struggle with teaching writing skills and evaluating written assignments.

View from above and to the right of a woman's hands at a desk writing in a journal next to a lap top computer.Two mistakes that teachers may make are assuming that students in their courses know how to write a scholarly paper and not providing appropriate directions for assignments. These assumptions are likely to guarantee that the resulting student writing will disappoint.

As a quick aside, faculty often complain about the poor quality of student writing, claiming that students today don’t write as well as students in some vaguely imagined past, perhaps when the faculty member was a college freshman. However, the results of an interesting longitudinal study suggest otherwise. A report in JSTOR Daily, Student Writing in the Digital Age by Anne Trubek (October 19, 2016), summarizes the findings of the  2006 study by Andrea A. Lunsford and Karen J. Lunsford, Mistakes Are a Fact of Life: A National Comparative Study. “Lunsford and Lunsford, decided, in reaction to government studies worrying that students’ literacy levels were declining, to crunch the numbers and determine if students were making more errors in the digital age.” Their conclusion? “College students are making mistakes, of course, and they have much to learn about writing. But they are not making more mistakes than did their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents.” Regardless of your take on the writing of current students, it is worth giving thoughtful consideration to your part in improving your students’ writing.

Good writing comes as a result of practice and it is the role of the instructor to facilitate that practice. Students may arrive at university knowing how to compose a decent five-paragraph essay, but no one has taught them how to write a scholarly paper. They must learn to read critically, summarize what they have read, identify an issue, problem, flaw, or new development that challenges what they have read. They must then construct an argument, back it with evidence (and understand what constitutes acceptable evidence), identify and address counter-arguments, and reach a conclusion. Along the way they should learn how to locate appropriate source materials, assemble a bibliography, and properly cite their sources. As an instructor, you must show them the way.

Students will benefit from having the task of writing a term paper broken into smaller components or assignments. Have students start with researching a topic and creating a bibliography. Librarians are often available to come to your class to instruct students in the art of finding sources and citing them correctly. Next, assign students to producing a summary of the materials they’ve read and identifying the issue they will tackle in their paper. Have them outline their argument. Ask for a draft. Considering using peer review for some of these steps to distribute the burden of commenting and grading. Evaluating other’s work will improve their own. [See the May 29, 2015 Innovative Instructor post Using the Critique Method for Peer Assessment.] And the opportunity exists to have students meet with you in office hours to discuss some of these assignments so that you may provide direct guidance and mentoring. Their writing skills will not develop in a vacuum.

Your guidance is critical to their success. This starts with clear directions for each assignment. For an essay you will be writing a prompt that should specify the topic choices, genre, length, formal requirements (whether outside sources should be used, your expectations on thesis and argument, etc.), and formatting, including margins, font size, spacing, titling, and student identification. Directions for research papers, fiction pieces, technical reports, and other writing assignments should include the elements that you expect to find in student submissions. Do not assume students know what to include or how to format their work.

As part of the direction you give, consider sharing with your students the rubric by which you will evaluate their work. See the June 26, 2014 Innovative Instructor post Sharing Assignment Rubrics with Your Students for more detail. Not sure how to create a rubric? See previous posts: from October 8, 2012 Using a Rubric for Grading Assignments, November 21, 2014 Creating Rubrics (by Louise Pasternak), and June 14, 2017 Quick Tips: Tools for Creating Rubrics. Rubrics will save you time grading, ensure that your grading is equitable, and provide you with a tangible defense against students complaining about their grades.

Giving feedback on writing assignments can be time consuming so focus on what is most important. This means, for example, noting spelling and grammar errors but not fixing them. That should be the student’s job. For a short assignment, writing a few comments in the margins and on the last page may be doable, but for a longer paper consider typing up your comments on a separate page. Remember to start with something positive, then offer a constructive critique.

As well, bring writing into your class in concrete ways. For example, at the beginning of class, have students write for three to five minutes on the topic to be discussed that day, drawing from the assigned readings. Discuss the assigned readings in terms of the authors’ writing skills. Make students’ writing the subject of class activities through peer review. Incorporate contributions to a class blog as part of the course work. Remember, good writing is a result of practice.

Finally, there are some great resources out there to help you help your students improve their writing. Perdue University’s Online Writing Lab—OWL—website is all encompassing with sections for instructors (K-12 and Higher Ed) and students. For a quick start go to the section Non-Perdue College Level Instructors and Students. The University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers a page on Evaluating Student Writing that includes Designing Rubrics and Grading Standards, Rubric Examples, Written Comments on Student Writing, and tips on managing your time grading writing.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Photo by: Matthew Henry. CC License via Burst.com.

 

 

Back to School: From the Archives

Illustration of a blackboard with "Welcome to Class" written in white chalk.The Innovative Instructor blog is celebrating its five-year anniversary—we started posting in September 2012. To mark the beginning of the academic year, here are some tips and helpful hints in the form of posts from the archives to get instructors started on another successful semester. There are some new resources included as well.

Looking for advice on preparing for the first day of class and beyond? A post on from August 15, 2015, Back to School, offers some resources.  The Center for Teaching Excellence (CTE) at the University of Virginia has a great webpage on Teaching the First Day(s) of Class, with references to material on engaging students, creating an inclusive classroom, building rapport, learning names, and troubleshooting common teaching challenges.

What about using an icebreaker, an exercise or activity that provides an opportunity for students and the instructor to get to know one another? Take a look at the August 30, 2013 post Icebreakers for some ideas. Faculty Focus had a recent article, First Day of Class Activities that Create a Climate for Learning (July 19, 2017) that offers some other options.

Learning your students’ names is important to create a positive classroom climate. Even in a larger lecture course there are some ways to accomplish this task. See the post Learning Your Students’ Names from September 6, 2013 for tips and tricks. You can also download the guide Not Quite 101 Ways to Learn Students’ Names from the University of Virginia’s CTE website.

The use of mobile devices in the classroom, particularly smartphones, has become an issue faced by all faculty. It’s best to be clear about your policies on device use from day one. For strategies on dealing with this issue, see the October 12, 2012 post, Tips for Regulating the Use of Mobile Devices in the Classroom.

With these resources and strategies in hand, your semester should be off to a great start.

Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources

Image source: Pixabay.com

Writing Course Learning Goals

Today’s post is timely—many instructors are putting together syllabi for fall courses. This year, Johns Hopkins’ faculty who teach undergraduates are being urged to include course learning goals in their syllabi. Mike Reese, Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Educational Resources (CER), and Richard Shingles, a lecturer in Biology and Pedagogy Specialist in the CER, and created an Innovative Instructor print series article as an aid, shared below. If you are looking for other information on creating effective syllabi, type syllabus in the search box for this blog to see previous articles on the topic. Another resource for writing course learning goals is Arizona State University’s free Online Objectives Builder. It runs instructors through a logical process for creating course goals and objectives. Take the short tutorial and you are on your way.

 

Graphic illustration of three lit light bulbs.

What are course learning goals and why do they matter?

Effective teaching starts with thoughtful course planning. The first step in preparing a course is to clearly define your course learning goals. These goals describe the broad, overarching expectations of what students should be able to do by the end of the course, specifically what knowledge students should possess and/or what skills they should be able to demonstrate. Instructors use goals to design course assignments and assessments, and to determine what teaching methods will work best to achieve the desired outcomes.

Course learning goals are important for several reasons. They communicate the instructor’s expectations to students on the syllabus. They guide the instructor’s selection of appropriate teaching approaches, resources, and assignments. Learning goals inform colleagues who are teaching related or dependent courses. Similarly, departments can use them to map the curriculum. Departmental reviews of the learning goals ensure prerequisite courses teach the skills necessary for subsequent courses, and that multiple courses are not unnecessarily teaching redundant skills.

Once defined, the overarching course learning goals should inform the class-specific topics and teaching methods. Consider an example goal: At the end of the course, students will be able to apply social science data collection and analysis techniques. Several course sessions or units will be needed to teach students the knowledge and skills necessary to meet this goal. One class session might teach students how to design a survey; another could teach them how to conduct a research interview.

A syllabus usually includes a learning goals section that begins with a statement such as, “At the end of this course, students will be able to:” that is followed by 4-6 learning goals clearly defining the skills and knowledge students will be able to demonstrate.

Faculty should start with a general list of course learning goals and then refine the list to make the goals more specific. Edit the goals by taking into consideration the different abilities, interests, and expectations of your students and the amount of time available for class instruction. How many goals can your students accomplish over the length of the course? Consider including non-content goals such as skills that are important in the field.

Content goal: Analyze the key forces that influenced the rise of Japan as an economic superpower.
Non-content goal: Conduct a literature search.

The following list characterizes clearly-defined learning goals. Consider these suggestions when drafting goals.

Specific – Concise, well-defined statements of what students will be able to do.
Measurable – The goals suggest how students will be assessed. Use action verbs that can be observed through a test, homework, or project (e.g., define, apply, propose).

Non-measurable goal: Students will understand Maxwell’s Equations.
Measurable goal: Students will be able to explain in words and pictures the full set of Maxwell’s Equations in a vacuum.

Achievable – Students have the pre-requisite knowledge and skills to achieve the goals.
Relevant – The skills or knowledge described are appropriate for the course or the program in which the course is embedded.
Time-bound – State when students should be able to demonstrate the skill (end of the course, end of semester, etc.).

The most difficult aspect of writing learning goals for most instructors is ensuring the goals are measurable and achievable. In an introductory science course, students may be expected to recall or describe basic facts and concepts. In a senior humanities course, students may be expected to conduct deep critical analysis and synthesis of themes and concepts. There are numerous aids online that suggest action verbs to use when writing learning goals that are measurable and achievable. These aids are typically structured by Bloom’s Taxonomy – a framework for categorizing educational goals by their challenge level. Below is an example of action verbs aligned with Bloom’s Taxonomy.

Chart showing verbs aligned with Bloom's Taxonomy levels.

Avoid vague verbs like “understand” or “know” because it can be difficult to come to consensus about how the goal can be measured. Think more specifically about what students should be able to demonstrate.

Here are examples of learning goals for several different disciplines using a common introductory statement. “By the end of this course, students will be able to do the following…

“Propose a cognitive neuroscience experiment that justifies the choice of question, experimental method and explains the logic of the proposed approach.” (Cognitive Science)
“Articulate specific connections between texts and historical, cultural, artistic, social and political contexts.” (German and Romance Languages and Literature)
“Design and conduct experiments.” (Chemistry)
“Design a system to meet desired needs within realistic constraints such as economic, environmental, social, political, ethical, health and safety, manufacturability, and sustainability.” (Biomedical Engineering)

Additional Resources
Bloom’s Taxonomy article. http://cer.jhu.edu/files/InnovInstruct-BP_blooms-taxonomy-action-speakslouder.pdf
Blog post on preparing a syllabus. http://ii.library.jhu.edu/2017/02/23/lunch-and-learn-constructing-acomprehensive-syllabus

Authors
Richard Shingles
, Lecturer, Biology Department, JHU
Dr. Richard Shingles is a faculty member in the Biology department and also works with the Center for Educational Resources at Johns Hopkins University. He is the Director of the TA Training Institute and The Teaching Institute at JHU. Dr. Shingles also provides pedagogical and technological support to instructional faculty, postdocs and graduate students.
Michael J. Reese Jr., Associate Dean and Director, CER
Mike Reese is Associate Dean of University Libraries and Director of the Center for Educational Resources. He has a PhD from the Department of Sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

Images source: © 2017 Reid Sczerba, Center for Educational Resources